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Early thoughts on iGEM 2014

A tiny fraction of the iGEM 2014 crowd just before the opening ceremonies
A tiny fraction of the iGEM 2014 crowd just before the opening ceremonies

We’re just a few hours into the four-day synthetic biology spectacular that is the iGEM competition. According to Randy Rettberg, iGEM President, there are 225 teams and 2300 participants in this year’s event from around the world.

We will have plenty of coverage over the next few days, but I wanted to start off with some initial thoughts. For live updates, be sure to follow us on Twitter @PLOSSynbio.

  1. Collaboration: iGEM is one of the most friendly scientific conferences I have had the opportunity to attend, which is particularly exciting considering that it is, in fact, a competition. However, iGEM has clearly created a culture of collaboration, and the participants take this seriously. It is perhaps no surprise, considering the fact that all biobricks are dropped into the iGEM repository and available for use by future teams. In fact, the team from Hong Kong (HKUST) wanted to make this repository easier to use and so, as part of their project they developed a toolbox for future teams. This utility includes a search tool to streamline the process of digging through previous projects, a startup handbook with tips and tricks, and a report breaking down the category of each project to allow future teams to pick “underrepresented” topics such as those related to business development. All of this brings up…
  2. Progressive Thinking: Each team builds directly on the work of previous teams through the use of biobricks. Again, of course, this is by design, part of the nature of iGEM. It is a powerful approach that becomes ingrained in the participants as they move through the training pipeline from undergraduate to PI. Beyond just progressive thinking, one also sees…
  3. Integration: That is, the integration of in vitro/ex vivo approaches with computer modeling. Put another way, integrating wet lab with Matlab. Again, I realize this is may be stating the obvious, almost a tautology when it comes to synthetic biology. However, it is worth noting anyway because the students are learning and using this integrative cross-disciplinary approach from day one. The general trend in scientific research of eliminating silos is beginning to reap results, whether it be in the development of “lab on a chip” systems or the design of small molecules for therapeutic use. Of course, science doesn’t get very far without…
  4. Communication: Teams are interacting with the public and the press, talking about what synthetic biology is and why it matters. This is incredibly encouraging, especially in the context of my recent conversation with David Rejeski on communicating synthetic biology. In addition to talking to the public and the press, however, teams are also participating in…
  5. Education:  That is, younger students. Teams are going into middle and high school classrooms, sharing their projects and the applications with future scientists. Many of these interactions include a hands-on component, with teams developing mock experiments for the students to experience modified versions (or applications) of the iGEM projects. Thus, iGEM participants are demonstrating that, in fact, science is…
  6. Fun: I need not point out to this audience that science is painful, slow, and end almost endlessly frustrating. And, yet, it is incredibly fun and rewarding. As far as I can tell, the participants are having fun here (one would hope so, what’s not to like about a five-day trip to Boston?). More importantly, though, they appear to have enjoyed the difficult process of developing their projects back home. With project names such as “Click Coli” and “Finding Pneumo,” how can you not be having a good time?

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